The FP Debate: Samuel Huntington’s Legacy

A virtual roundtable on the provocative cofounder of FP.

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When Samuel P. Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel cofounded Foreign Policy in 1970, their explicit goal was to attack entrenched orthodoxies in the Washington debate. They promised a journal that would be serious but not scholarly, lively but not glib, and critical without being negative.

Already a well-established scholar, Huntington published his most controversial work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, several decades later.

In light of Huntington’s recent passing, FP is hosting a virtual roundtable, conducted over e-mail, on his life and legacy. All this week, well be posting answers and reactions from leading commentators and scholars on the question: What was Samuel P. Huntington’s greatest insight about the world and/or what was his greatest analytical error?

Day 1: Minxin Pei

Of all the great political scientists in the past half century, Sam Huntington stands out as the only one who has made fundamental contributions to each of the four subfields of political science: political theory, American politics, international relations, and comparative politics. Sam has a unique gift that might be called an intellectual Midas touch — whatever he has written has become a classic. So it is nearly impossible to identify what his greatest intellectual contribution to the study of politics is. All his contributions are important and unique in their own ways.

As one of Sam’s students, however, I think Sam’s most profound insight is that ostensible economic and political progress generates the instability and conflict that endanger the very progress itself. Sam’s most influential book is not The Clash of Civilizations, but Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). Contrary to the conventional wisdom in the early 1960s that modernization would bring about, simultaneously, economic progress and political development, Sam sees just the opposite. He observes that modernity is stabilizing, but modernization — the process of achieving modernity — breeds instability. So, instead of political development, modernization generates political decay, marked by rising political violence and chaos in developing countries.

Contrarianism also marks Sam’s understanding of the causes of international conflict after the Cold War. Keenly aware of the complexities of cultures, Sam is not persuaded by the ideological triumphalism that accompanied the West’s victory in the Cold War. He sees, instead of emerging ideological homogeneity, new ideological divides based on historically embedded religious and cultural differences and historical memories. In other words, the end of the Cold War will not cement the ideological hegemony of Western liberalism or lead to an era of democratic peace. Ironically, the looming dominance of Western liberalism would motivate non-Western societies to mobilize their own cultural resources and create countervailing ideologies. As in Sam’s Political Order, The Clash of Civilizations is centered on the same insight that progress can, ironically if not perversely, generate the very conflict which progress is intended to eliminate.

Sam’s understanding of how politics, whether domestic and international, creates conflict has led to his long quest for order. As a realist, Sam understands conflict is a given, but can be managed and channeled into peaceful expressions with the right political institutions. His emphasis on political order and its relationship with well-organized governments and capable leadership in Political Order has left the impression that Sam is advocating authoritarian rule for developing countries. Unfortunately, such a reading misrepresents Sam’s view. Nowhere in Political Order does Sam explicitly claim that autocracy is more capable of providing order than democracy. What he does argue is that weak democracies in developing countries are doomed to fail. Truth hurts, but Sam is not afraid of saying it.

Although Sam did not answer the question of which types of government are better guardians of order in 1968, he has a more explicit answer almost a quarter century later. In The Third Wave (1992), an analysis of the transition to democratic rule from the early 1970s to the end of the Cold War, Sam shows that, for all their faults and infirmities, democratic political institutions have become preferred custodians of political order in the developing world.

Minxin Pei is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Read on for Day 2: Stephen M. Walt

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